Auctioneer Fritz Hatton leads the live segment at last
year’s Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction. ##Photo provided

Lots to Discuss

WVWA 2020 auction goes online, adds charity, promotes 2018s

By L.M. Archer

The fifth annual Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction went virtual in 2020. The exclusive trade auction by Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) entertained bids online Aug. 11–13. Showcasing the 2018 vintage, the event featured 93 exclusive lots from 88 participating wineries. In addition, the auction added charitable partner James Beard Foundation’s Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, part of the Open for Good Campaign.

Auction steering committee past chair and current WVWA member David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard commented, “It’s a great opportunity for this auction to not only fund the amazing work the Willamette Valley Wineries Association has done in the past, but also, as bids go beyond the opening bids, for that money, in fact, to go to the James Beard Foundation Black and Indigenous peoples of North America special fund.”

Also new, the traditional Friday pre-auction walk-around tasting turned technical in its online format. Participating Willamette Valley winemakers and winery principals joined moderating auction steering committee members for 15 different one-hour sessions with trade and media, showcasing these unique wines.

Wine writer L.M. Archer reported on the virtual seminar moderated by Adelsheim on Aug. 6, featuring winemaker Spencer Spetnagel of Durant Vineyards (Lot No. 66), winemaker Katie Santora of Chehalem Winery (No. 67), winemaker Matt Wengel of Lemelson Vineyards (No. 69), Shirley Brooks from Elk Cove Vineyards (No. 71), and winemaker Tim Jones of The Four Graces (No. 73).

Goldilocks Vintage

Panelists uniformly praised the 2018 vintage as exceptional. “I’ve been making wine in Oregon since 2015,” said Matt Wengel of Lemelson Vineyards. “Coming in on some of the warmest vintages on record — 2014, 2015, 2016 — and then 2019 [was] super cold and rainy. So I feel like 2018 is what I’m calling the ‘Goldilocks’ vintage. It’s my favorite vintage of the past five.”

For winemaker Spencer Spetnagel of Durant Vineyards, 2018 proved a personal watermark, too. “[The] 2018 [vintage] was the first vintage in our new winery on the property…” he said. “The vintage really brought a balance of structure and density and grace, which I think is a perfect trifecta for Pinot Noir.”

When asked by moderator David Adelsheim if the 2018 vintage resembled any other past vintages in the Willamette Valley, many winemakers agreed upon 2012. “[The] 2012 [vintage] definitely had the intensity and density of the wine that I think 2018 is showing,” said Katie Santora of Chehalem Winery, “But there’s also a more acidic drive to 2018 that I don’t think 2012 retained. [The] 2018 [vintage] is showing really nicely right now, but I do see it aging really nicely, too, because of that acid retention, which was because of cold nights.”

Shirley Brooks, representing Adam Campbell of Elk Cove Vineyards, concurred, “Oregon does acid. That’s what keeps these wines alive and vibrant.”

Brooks, a 20-year veteran of Elk Cove, and Oregon wine pioneer Adelsheim both likened the 2018 vintage to 1999. Adelsheim explained, “There are some differences — the crop was a little bit higher; it was a little bit warmer — but still, the combination of the cool ripening at the end and not having to worry about hitting the exact hour of picking meant not only that you had a choice, but [regarding] a lot of the wines other people were making, you were not worrying about whether you should open them or recommend them, because [the wineries] weren’t making mistakes either.”

Problem Child

Unlike the 2018 ‘Goldilocks’ vintage up for bid, 2020 has proven a problem child beyond the vineyard. Hospitality, food and wine continue to struggle with crises imposed by the pandemic and U.S. tariffs; social unrest adds yet another layer of complexity. “This year’s auction — being virtual — is very different from the in-person auctions that we’ve done for the past four years for some obvious reasons and one not-so-obvious reason,” said Adelsheim.

“We felt that this year was special because so many people have been affected by COVID,” he said. “Not just in having to do Zoom, but restaurants have been literally forced to suspend operation, and the net effect has been the loss of business and that many restaurants may never re-open.”

WVWA chose to work with the James Beard Foundation (JBF) this year after learning about the newly established fund benefiting Black and Indigenous Americans. “[Our choice of charity was] obviously, not just [centered on] the COVID issue,” Adelsheim said, “but also what’s happened after George Floyd, and recognition that the James Beard Foundation, and by derivation, Willamette Valley wineries, are giving to the special problems that exist among people who have not been widely supported in the past.” 

Tasting Notes

Lot 66: Durant Vineyards “Synergy” Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills

Spencer Spetnagle: “‘Synergy’ is the synergy of 67% Pommard from our oldest vines from Bishop’s Block, planted in 1973 — which are typically most complex and elegant — and 33% Pommard from one of our youngest blocks, Olivia Grace, planted in 2007 — to bring more structure and excitement.”

Alcohol: 14.08% | Robe: Clear, ruby

Nose: Cherry, raspberry, baking spice aromas.

Palate: Light body, well-balanced acids and tannins, solid structure. Bright red currant flavors precede aromatic cherry/raspberry mid-palate blends to a lingering, sous bois finish.

Lot 67: Chehalem Winery “Valley of Flowers” Pinot Noir, Chehalem Mountains

Katie Santora: “‘Valley of Flowers’ is the name of our blend, and that is two-fold. [First], Chehalem means ‘valley of flowers.’ It’s an homage to the Native American Calapooia Tribe who named it centuries ago. And [second], Corral Creek vineyard has those perfumed, floral characteristics. Corral Creek is in Chehalem Mountain’s newest sub-AVA, Laurelwood AVA. Block 9 at the top of the vineyard has Pommard and Wädenswil clones planted to loess (Laurelwood) soil.”

Alcohol: 13.9% | Robe: Clear, garnet

Nose: Bright red fruit, baking spice, cherry, floral aromas, slight hint of evergreen.

Palate: Light body, perfectly poised structure, lithe tannins. Aromas repeat on palate with an unexpected savory component up front and an energetic core carrying from start to finish.

Lot 69: Lemelson Vineyards “Gravity Flows” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

Matt Wengel: “Eric Lemelson founded Lemelson Vineyards in 1995 when he planted his first vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains. He built a state-of-the-art gravity-flow winemaking facility in 1999 — four tiers of gravity flow. And it’s [for] this unique focus on gravity that we named our wine ‘Gravity Flows.’ It’s a blend of Meyer Vineyard on Dundee Hills Dijon 777 clones, and Wädenswil from our Yamhill-Carlton property, Stermer Vineyard. Meyer contributes red fruit and elegance while Stermer provides richness, spice and earth.”

Alcohol: 13.9% | Robe: Clear, garnet

Nose: Dark cherry, black tea, earthy (peaty, brown) aromas.

Palate: Light body, solid structure, rich texture, tightly wrapped core. Earthy, black tea and dark cherry segue into crabapple mid-palate followed by a discreet finish.

Lot 71: Elk Cove Vineyards “Rock Opera” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley 

Shirley Brooks: “[The fruit was] sourced from Clay Court Vineyard, one of our newer sites, which is on top of Parrett Mountain in the Chehalem Mountains — it’s our only vineyard that we own on Jory soils. We blended that with our La Bohème Vineyard, which is on the winery estate — old vine, high elevation, from the Yamhill-Carlton AVA.  So this tiny, five-case lot is this really beautiful melding of red and blue fruit. It’s the first time ever that we’ve put two vineyards together in this really tiny blend.”

Alcohol: 14% | Robe: Dark, ruby

Nose: Blue fruit (blueberry, dark plum), dark cherry, violets, dark earth aromas.

Palate: Cinnamon and allspice notes lead to earthy red fruit mid-palate and an aromatic, evergreen finish.

Lot 73: The Four Graces “Grace and Harmony” Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton

Tim Jones: “Doe Ridge Estate Vineyard, Block 18, in Yamhill-Carlton is where this wine comes from. The interesting thing about block 18 is that all of our other vineyards are separated — different rootstocks, different clones. This block at the top of the hill is a blend of all the clones (667, 777, 115, Pommard) and rootstocks. It looks a little funky, because there are different growing habits and things like that, but it achieves its own balance. The idea with [naming the wine] ‘Grace and Harmony’ is an ode to The Four Graces, to the brand, and ‘Harmony’ is the idea that harmony exists on its own; you can’t really create it. This vineyard block creates its own balance.”

Alcohol: 14.2% | Robe: Deep, ruby

Nose: Dark red fruit, perfume, dark soil, spice aromas.

Palate: Light body, pronounced acids, supple tannins, silky finish. Blackberry, raspberry and brambleberry notes predominate from beginning to end.

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